The words “Do not be satisfied with mediocrity!” have been much in my mind of late, and I thought of them again as a read a brilliant thesis on Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited by Elizabeth Quackenbush, a senior at Thomas Aquinas College this year. I suppose I must have been about 14 when I first read Brideshead, and I was completely dazzled. As Thomas Howard once wrote,
Any reader ignorant enough to congratulate himself on his own cleverness is very quickly left in the dust by the sheer agility, the prowess, the vivace tempo of the badinage flying about his ears. You thought you were urbane? Meet Sebastian: you will feel yourself an oaf. You thought you were witty? Meet Anthony Blanche: you will retire in confusion from the lists…
What Elizabeth Quackenbush shows with great skill is how the opening protest at the the dreary modern world of Hooper and industrial warfare, and the contrast of the glittering world of pre-war Brideshead, are stages in “an education in desire” for Charles Ryder. Sebastian draws Charles out of the priggish, bourgeois intellectualism of school years by teaching him to desire beauty. But the fleeting beauty of earthly things is not enough, and hence the painful end of his time with Sebastian and later with Julia are necessary to lead him to desire the one good that can really satisfy.
It has been said that the tragedy of the modern world is not just in the absence of God, but also the absence of humankind. The history the rise of capitalist, bourgeois society, is largely the history of the contraction of the human heart, of human desire, to material comfort. Of course there has always been protest against this. Kierkegaard’s aesthete in Either Or is the type of the ever recurring protest of the human spirit against the pusillanimity of modernity:
The tremendous poetical power of folk literature is manifest, among other ways, in its power to desire. In comparison, desire in our age is simultaneously sinful and boring, because it desires what belongs to the neighbor. Desire in folk literature is fully aware that the neighbor does not possess what it seeks any more than it does itself. And if it is going to desire sinfully, then it is so flagrant that people must be shocked. It is not going to let itself be hemmed in by the cold probability calculations of a pedestrian understanding. Don Giovanni still strides across the stage with his 1,003 mistresses. Out of reverence for the venerableness of tradition, no one dares to smile. If a poet had dared to do this in our age, he would be laughed to scorn.
In Anna Karenina Tolstoy makes fun of English novels for having a particularly mundane ideal of happiness. The hero of the novel that Anna reads on the train “was already almost reaching his English happiness, a baronetcy and an estate.” Indeed one of the great archetypes of the English novel Robinson Crusoe begins with Crusoe’s father making a plea for “the middle state of life” as “most suited to human happiness.” Nowadays, the standards of sexual morality are so much laxer than they were for the bourgeoisie of the golden ages of the English novel, that one might think that we live rather in an age of reckless hedonism– rather than of boring respectability. But as Eve Tushnet as shown so well this is largely an illusion.
The romantic/aesthetic protest against respectable mediocrity is a step in the right direction, but it can’t be fully satisfying either. There are two ways in which it destroys itself. The first we see in Sebastian–the escape from dreariness that he finds in sensual pleasures destroys him. The glittering things of this world, the simulacra gentium, cannot satisfy the heart, and will eventually “eat you alive.” That last phrase is borrowed from David Foster Wallace, the great dichter of the Sebastian problem in our day, and also the great describer of the second way in which the aesthetic life leads to self-destruction: the attitude of disillusion and irony that sees through everything can no-longer really enjoy anything. (The ultimate “postmodern” posture). In Brideshead this is what happens to Charles.
As Quackenbush shows the disappointment of Sebastian’s ruin leads Charles into an attitude of ironic aestheticism, in which he still tries to find comfort in beauty and refined pleasure, but in which he has given up on love. Quackenbush uses the brilliant scene of Charles’s lunch with Rex Motram to illustrate this:
Charles enjoys the delicious meal, but his enjoyment does not produce openness, as it seemed to do with Sebastian. Here, Charles’ savoring of pleasure is a means for distancing himself from another. ‘[Rex] lit his cigar and sat back at peace with the world; I, too, was at peace in another world than his. We both were happy. He talked of Julia and I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog’s barking miles away on a still night.’ With a character as boorish as Rex Mottram, who loves nothing beautiful except insofar as it can impress others, Charles’ distancing himself is understandable; the image of the small-souled Rex in front of him allows him to feel that he is great-souled. Yet, though he cannot see it at the time, they have a closer kinship than he might like to admit.
The resemblance she finds is that neither Rex and Charles are complete human beings, Rex is “a tiny bit of one” and Charles is “a small part of myself pretending to be whole.”
Charles’s attitude of ironic disillusionment, his unwillingness to open himself through love, dries up all the beauty and inspiration in his life. He becomes like Kierkegaard’s aesthete, who says, “I feel as if I were a piece in a game of chess, when my opponent says of it: That piece cannot be moved.”
But again the Flytes come to the rescue. This time it is Julia who teaches Charles to desire again. He is drawn out of himself and desires to give himself to her, “The idea of self-gift which Charles learns from Julia is the incorporation of another’s experiences and aspirations into one’s own… ‘our two lives, so long widely separate, now being knit to one.'”
The most brilliant part of Quackenbush’s thesis is her reading of the final stages of Charles’s education in desire: his separation from Julia and his return to Brideshead in the epilogue. This is what Thomas Howard has called “the most elegantly handled conversion in all of fiction.” It is so subtly done that many readers miss it. Quackenbush is very deft at showing how Waugh hints at the interior struggle in Charles that leads him to the ultimate desire. At Lord Marchmain’s death, it appears that Charles recognizes the reality of God for the first time, but his actual entry into the Church is never described. The reader only learns that Charles has become a Catholic in the epilogue when he prays in the chapel of Brideshead using “an ancient, newly-learned form of words.” I remember once being at a seminar on Brideshead with Thomas Howard in which several participants hadn’t noticed that Charles had become Catholic at the end. One of them asked, “but if he is already Catholic in the Prologue why isn’t he more happy?” Prof. Howard answered “Well, why aren’t we?” Good question. If we have really found the desiderium collium aeternorum, the unspeakable beauty, the good compared to which all earthly goods are mere shadows and hints of goodness, then why aren’t we perfectly happy? Of course the reason is that we do not yet have the beatific vision, we live still in the darkness of faith. Eternal life is with us as a seed hidden in the ground. Our Lord is with us, but hidden in the in the mystery of faith, the Blessed Sacrament. The more one separates the heart from attachment to lesser goods and lives entirely from the bread of life, the more the one lives in the joy of hope, in the substance of things hoped for.
The epilogue of Brideshead is a remarkably powerful description of the Eucharist as the sacrament of hope. As Quackenbush writes,
The Eucharist, as the Divine Presence in the world of man, is the sacrament of God’s penetration and redemption of reality. Before he visited the chapel, Charles’ sorrow at his loss of love had swelled into the universal question of whether there can be redemption for the world. The Eucharist claims to be the answer to that question, because it attests that God is present in this very reality, redeeming it even as we speak.
Presumably Charles knew this already at some level when he became a Catholic, but the reality of it come home to him in a new way after his return to Brideshead, precisely because he has a new sense of how desperately reality as whole needs redemption. And then a remarkable change takes place in him, again Quackenbush:
Now, Charles has awoken once more, but instead of advancing to a new world, he turns back to the old world, the very world which he lately saw as desolate. He, so recently mourning his lost vitality, now walks briskly — almost runs — back to the world of Hooper, as if responding to the clarion call of the cook-house bugle. […] The tabernacle light, relit because of the builders and tragedians, is the sign of God’s love for all humanity, a love that has the power to transform even the age of Hooper.
This a key moment in the education in desire, sorrow having taken from him all desires that are too small, his desire is ready to expand to embrace God and all of creation in God. Charles is beginning to experience what St Benedict promises those who follow his Rule:
Do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose beginning cannot but be narrow and hard. For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.
Hence the wonderful last lines of the novel: “I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room. ‘You’re looking unusually cheerful today,’ said the second-in-command.”